The Cambridge Companion to Piaget
reviewed by Richard De Lisi - October 04, 2010
Title: The Cambridge Companion to Piaget
Author(s): Ulrich Müller, Jeremy I. M. Carpendale, and Leslie Smith (eds.)
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0521898587, Pages: 440, Year: 2009
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The energy in the late day, packed auditorium was palpable. It seemed evident that Piaget understood questions posed in English despite waiting for translations to be completed before answering. If memory serves, the main point of the lecture on creativity by Piaget was that human intellectual development is itself a creative process. What was (and still is) unique to Piaget is the idea that human creativity is not predetermined or limited to a small number of especially talented individuals, not accidental, and not engineered by external agents. Piaget came to Baltimore knowing that his ideas about human creativity were difficult for an American audience to grasp.
To make his case, Piaget summarized findings from empirical studies that probed childrens reasoning and invoked processes of equilibration, logical-mathematical experience, and reflective abstraction to explain creativity in childhood. During the session Piaget was asked to account for his own creativity. As I recall and as recounted in Bringuier (1980, pp. 127-8), Piaget said he used three methods: first read nothing in the field you are working in until you have conducted your own work; second, read as much as you can in related fields; third, have a whipping boy, which for Piaget was logical positivism.
The discerning reader of The Cambridge Companion to Piaget can gain considerable insight into Piagets worldview on the development of human knowledge from infancy through adolescence, and into each of his methods of creativity. When he began his work in the 1920s it was not too difficult to read nothing in the field. Indeed, the field that Piaget worked in was being created by him, starting with a clinical interview methodology drawn from psychoanalytic and psychometric approaches to child study. Piagets approach to accounting for logical-mathematical or rational thought as found in adults by studying development in children was heavily influenced by ideas drawn from epistemology and biology. The connections between the biological-epistemological framework Piaget adopted throughout his long career and his empirical investigations are an important theme in The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. In several chapters, Piagets most important ideas and their articulation over time are carefully traced as he worked to build on his intellectual precursors and make evident the limitations of those who appealed to conventional approaches that served to mechanize the creative force in human knowledge acquisition.
The Cambridge Companion to Piaget reminds us that Piagets work remained innovative and interdisciplinary from the 1920s until his death in 1980. Several key points of contact between Piaget and American researchers and benefactors are described in this volume. It is interesting to discover, for example, that Piagets books on the figurative functions of cognition perception, mental imagery, and memory were motivated, in part, to counter interpretations offered by information processing theorists of the 1950s -1960s such as J. Bruner. The relative degree of isolation enjoyed by the Genevans during WW II was over. By reading in his field and traveling abroad, Piaget and his team became mindful of critiques that the 1960s only foreshadowed, and they began to accommodate to perspectives on infant and child cognition that differed radically from Piagets despite superficial surface similarities. As predicted by Piagets equilibration model, this incorporation of contradictory perspectives led to the creation of new insights into childhood cognitive development. Above all else, perhaps, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget wants readers to understand that the period from 1970-1980 was extremely fertile. Yet, some thirty years later this work is largely ignored.
The felt need to reconcile divergent views is another theme highlighted throughout The Cambridge Companion to Piaget. At the time of his lecture on creativity in 1972, Piagets popularity in developmental psychology was unparalleled. The maturing cognitive revolution included diverse perspectives that had yet to become more fully differentiated. Piaget knew that his acclaim was uninformed on critical points. His central thesis that human knowledge is constructed by an organic, self-regulatory process (equilibration) was proposed long before the cognitive revolution of the 1950s-1960s. With constructivism, Piaget offered an alternative to standard views of knowledge as information accumulation or knowledge as unfolding. But in a cruel twist of fate, from the time of his death in 1980 to about 2000, Piaget became a kind of whipping boy for researchers and theorists alike, especially those that appeal to modularity of mind and innate, nascent competencies. And now a case can be made that opposition to Piagets ideas has largely shifted to indifference. For example, those who espouse a developmental approach to evolutionary psychology make scant reference to Piaget whose work had such deep roots in biological-evolutionary ideas. As a consequence, although Piagets remarkable and unprecedented contributions to developmental psychology are firmly established, many readers might wonder if Piagets ideas are mainly of historical interest.
The team responsible for The Cambridge Companion to Piaget wants to encourage readers to (re)consider Piagets work. The editorial team and the contributing authors offer an informed, authoritative, and comprehensive introduction to Piaget. The volume makes evident Piagets wide range of original scholarly contributions to topics that include affectivity, moral development, consciousness, pedagogy, methodology, biology, epistemology, developmental processes (e.g., equilibration, abstraction), social influences, and empirical demonstrations of new forms of knowing in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Each of these topics is covered in a single chapter along with an informative introductory chapter, two chapters that present historical perspectives, and two concluding chapters that address the concept of stage and individual variability in cognitive performance.
Given all that has been written about Piagets work including insightful summative introductions (Furth, 1981), careful tracing of ideas over time (Chapman, 1988), selective summaries of seminal empirical findings (Gruber & Voneche, 1977), and prior work by many of the present volumes contributors, it is fair to ask whether or not the Cambridge Companion to Piaget breaks any new ground. On the whole, I think not (even the books cover photo of Piaget circa 1925 was previously used by Smith, 1993 p. x). Much of what has been said here has been said before. However, the editors are to be commended for requiring contributors to provide a frank assessment of current interest in Piagets work with points of criticism duly noted. There are two exceptions to this healthy feature of pointing out strengths and weaknesses in Piagets work. First was the lack of any chapter that systematically addressed Piagets changing views on the role of language in developmental constructivism and the critiques his views on language engendered (for example, Vygotsky and Chomsky receive almost no mention in the book). Second, the chapter on developmental epistemology by editor L. Smith might leave the naïve reader with an inflated view of the status of Piagets work in modern epistemology. In a recent personal communication, a philosopher colleague, E. Lepore, informed me that he knew of no modern American epistemologist whose work makes reference to Piaget. But to dwell on these shortcomings would be unfair. The volume presents a range of perspectives, not orthodoxy, and the editors were generous enough to allow contributors to offer views that at times did not align with those of other contributors, even the editors themselves.
The Cambridge Companion to Piaget only partially succeeds in achieving its objective of being accessible to advanced undergraduate students. Some chapters do this beautifully, but others are extremely dense and require a level of background knowledge more likely to be found in graduate students. The equal weight given to chapters on affectivity and the social on the one hand, and childhood on the other hand (one chapter for each topic area) is misleading for those unfamiliar with Piagets body of work. Piaget collected little data on affectivity and social influences in child development. Certainly, the extent of his writings on these topics pales in comparison to the lifetime of empirical and theoretical work on development during childhood. This observation is not intended as a critique of the chapter on childhood. It is simply to point out that an adequate summary of Piagets work on childhood would require volumes whereas a one chapter summary was adequate for other topics.
Overall, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget can be a useful starting point for use in a seminar or a research laboratory. The importance and impact of any book about Piagets work is perhaps best judged by the approach Piaget himself adopted. We humans have created a world in which information is often mistaken for understanding and virtual human interactions are ubiquitous. It is now almost impossible to either read nothing in ones field, or read widely in related fields. Perhaps we must await another creative genius to provide new insights about meaning making in the twenty-first century. In the meantime, The Cambridge Companion to Piaget reminds us that for most of those interested in pursuing these issues, Piaget provides an excellent starting point.
Bringuier, J-C. (1980). Conversations with Piaget. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Chapman, M. (1988). Constructive evolution. Origins and development of Piagets thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Furth, H.G. (1981). Piaget and knowledge (second edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gruber, H., & Vonèche, J-J. (1977). The essential Piaget. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Smith, L. (1993). Necessary knowledge. Piagetian perspectives on constructivism. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.